© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
TECHNOTE: 90.5 FM and AM870 reception

Promoting Partisan Divide May Up Candidates' Donations


Rest assured of this - we do not know who will win the presidential primary contest in either party. But we do know that every candidate will be spending time and money trying to figure out the best way to appeal to you. Campaigns draw heavily on research into what works and what doesn't. That's the moneyball version of politics, if you will. And a couple of economists recently came up with a finding that might have some bearing on the kind of political mail you receive. We're joined by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who has been looking into this. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: OK, what's the research into mail here?

VEDANTAM: Well, the research is looking into what kind of mail elicits donations from voters. So small donors of course are an important part of all campaigns. Ned Augenblick is an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. He and Jesse Cunha, a fellow economist, got a chance to run a real-world experiment. Now, the opportunity came about because of a most unusual reason. Here is Augenblick

NED AUGENBLICK: Jesse's dad, as it turns out, was running for a seat in Congress in Florida. And so he - you know, we kind of convinced him that if we would do a little help for him in terms of some, you know, analytics for the campaign that he would let us run some field experiments.

INSKEEP: OK, so what was the field experiment that this father was willing to put up with with his political fortunes on the line?

VEDANTAM: Well, here's the thing, Cunha's dad was a Democrat running against an incumbent Republican, Steve. And the district leaned conservative, so the odds of winning were very long. Giving money to a longshot campaign involves taking a risk, Steve. Why would you want to do that? There are two potential reasons. One, you might feel as a loyal Democrat that if other Democrats are supporting a candidate, you should do your part as well. So you want to play the role of a cooperator.

INSKEEP: Do your part, OK.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, but there's also a competitive reason. You may want to make sure that your candidate doesn't get outspent by the opposition.

INSKEEP: Ah, so is this the question - it's which one of these motivations is stronger?

VEDANTAM: Well, that's where the field experiment comes in. Augenblick and Cunha designed and sent out postcards to about 10,000 people in the district. One-third just got a request for money. One-third got a note that said fellow Democratic small donors were giving an average of $28. One-third got a note that said Republican small donors were giving an average of $28.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Now, telling Democrats that the other Democrats had given money did raise contributions, meaning the drive to cooperate does work. But the other technique involving competition did much better. Here's Augenblick.

AUGENBLICK: It turns out that that induced even more people to contribute. And furthermore, as opposed to contributing the amount that we specified, which like I said was about $30, they contributed about twice that amount. So there was a sense in which they didn't just want to match the contribution but actually to beat that contribution.

INSKEEP: Competitive rage is good for fundraising apparently.

VEDANTAM: It is good for fundraising. And that certainly is the implication for campaigns, Steve. But I think there's also an implication here for voters. Campaigns know that partisan divisions in the United States are strong. And one of the quickest and easiest ways to manipulate voters these days is to play up those divisions. So when you hear people badmouthing the other side or playing up the competitive aspect of a political race, you should ask yourself, is someone trying to manipulate me?

INSKEEP: I have another question in mind. Did the father win having gotten this assistance from his son and his friend?

VEDANTAM: He lost, Steve, but at least he helped the march of science.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He helps the march of science because he is NPR's social science correspondent and is also the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
To help strengthen our local reporting as WKAR's fiscal year ends, we need 75 new or upgraded sustainers by June 30th. Become a new monthly donor or increase your donation to support the trustworthy journalism you'll rely on before Election Day. Donate now.